Interview Meet The NFT Watchmaker Whose Virtual Pieces Can Cost As Much As A Real-Life Rolex
Jesus Calderon's virtual watches are commanding thousands of dollars – and, just maybe, pointing toward the future of collecting.
Jesus Calderon is a watch guy. The 29-year-old Chicagoan is also a crypto enthusiast and a motion graphics designer. In recent years, Calderon has converged those two spheres to establish a burgeoning horological NFT market, where he designs and sells virtual watches under the banner of Generative Watches.
Calderon’s Gen Watches exist as digitally rendered spoofs on the timepieces you know and love – see his Rødex Daitona and Rødex Bitmariner. He designs the 3-D animations with the help of an algorithm and uploads the finished product (a JPG or GIF) to his store, where enthusiasts pay handsomely for them in an abstracted form of currency. Today, a watch made from pixels that you store on your hard drive and show off on social media can command as much as a Rolex Submariner. Welcome to the future.
We sat down with Calderon to hear a little more about how he designs his Generative Watches, who’s collecting these things, and how we all might eventually be wearing virtual watches on our wrists in a video-game version of our world.
HODINKEE: Let’s start with the basics. For those of us who don’t totally understand what NFTs are, how would you describe them?
There are multiple ways to go about describing NFTs, and it just depends on what a specific project is doing. The most common NFT, and the one most people would understand, is where you make a piece of art, and you put it on a block chain. In doing this, you are essentially signing a digital image with your wallet. An NFT is just a signature of a piece of work that you made. If we think about it in terms of watches, it would be like if you had Kevin O’Leary or one of the head designers at Rolex or Audemars Piguet sign your watch. At A. Lange & Söhne, they do technically sign the watch, so anyone that works there and looks can tell who made it. But basically, that’s what I would equate an NFT to – it’s a digital signature.
You’ve been a motion graphics designer for a while now. How did you get into making digital watches?
Earlier this year I was scrolling through crypto Twitter, and I saw all of these big crypto guys posting watches and cars. And I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I like watches. I can do 3-D. And I don't see anybody filling that void right now.’ I thought people would love having awesome 3-D watches as a collectible, especially if they're representative of their real-life counterparts.
So what exactly is a generative watch?
It is an algorithmically generated collection of watches. I spent about a month creating an algorithm in Google Sheets that had a bunch of traits: Colors, materials, graphics, arms, etc. There are different model arms — so humans, aliens, zombies, apes, and robots. And for materials we have ceramic, metal, and glass. In 3-D I have the power to do anything. Some watches will be iridescent, and others are brushed or polished metals like gold, bronze, or steel. There are a ton of colors. It’s a lot of parameters that I tweaked in order to produce a variety of watches.
Are you creating these watches, or is the album algorithm creating these watches?
It’s both. I created the algorithm, and I play around with all of the parameters. I’ll make sure that the colors all fit together, and I look at the way everything mixes and matches. You could say that I’ve pretty much hand-built all of them. I know that’s sort of counterintuitive to say because I made an algorithm to do them all, but I wanted that element of randomness.
So once you set the algorithm, it’s not totally randomized in terms of the outcome of the watch design?
Yeah, exactly. The algorithm is helping while I’m making some curated decisions along the way, just to keep everything looking good.
Are you a watch person?
What’s your favorite watch?
I’m not balling out of control or anything. I have a Bulova mechanical chronograph. It was relatively inexpensive, but it’s the one I was wearing when I proposed to my wife, and so the sentimental value of it is the reason I wear it the most.
All of your generative watches are spoofs on real brands. How do you decide which brands you want to copy for an NFT?
Right now, I’m just choosing the pieces that people recognize the most. That would be watches like the Submariner or Daytona. Also things like the Speedmaster and Day-Date. I’m focusing on those big pieces in order to get more visibility because ultimately, the more eyes that are on the project, the better it’s going to be for the community and its ability to trade and to have liquidity. Because down the road ... if you’ve been in the NFT space, there is a lot of talk of the metaverse, which is basically a video-game world with real value, real money. So that is a goal for these.
Wait a second. I am hearing you right that eventually these generative watches will hold the same collector’s cachet in the metaverse that a real watch holds in the physical world?
That is the goal. And the reason being is that when it’s in the metaverse, it would actually be functional. Right now it’s just video animations in 3-D, but the accuracy of the way that it’s ticking is right. They’re all at eight beats per second, and if you really pay attention you’ll see the little stuttering, especially in the promo videos I’ve done. But it needs to be in the metaverse, essentially in an interactive game environment for you to pull it up and see, like, right now it’s 10:34.
So somebody is going to be able to actually tell the time through their generative watch when they exist in the metaverse?
My brain hurts. So how much does a generative watch go for if you’re paying in Ethereum?
For the first drop, I set them all at .1 ETH; at the time 1 ETH was around $3,000. So a watch was $300. For the Daitona, I set that one at .2 ETH because there are fewer of them, and in real life, it’s a lot harder to come across a Daytona. I am making some decisions where I look at what’s rare and more valuable in real life and try to translate that into the collection. I sold 68 at .2 ETH, and ETH was at $3,500 at that time. So I don’t know – that’s around $700 per watch.
You sold 68 digital watches at around $700 each. That’s real money.
It is, and it’s going right back into the project. Half of it went back into buying new computer equipment, just for the sake of making stuff faster. My rendering time is the biggest bottleneck right now.
Explain what you mean by rendering.
In my 3-D software there’s what’s called a renderer. And that’s basically the program that’s calculating the way that light is interacting with materials. This one is all pretty much translucent glass, and the computer is taking the time to be like: Okay, here’s all the light. How is it going through it, bouncing off the material? And what are the properties of the material? Then it spits out a final image. So each one of these watches is 200 frames, and each one takes time to render. So at 1080 x 1080 pixels, the total rendering time was six hours. There is an actual tangible value there in terms of every hour that I’m rendering is costing me time and money with electricity.
Tell us about some of your most successful watches.
Let me pull up the one that has sold for the most. So in the first drop there was someone that came in and bought up like 25 watches, including this one. Actually, this person won this watch, so they got it for free through a giveaway. And then they sold it for 6.6 ETH. So, in essence that person got, out of thin air, $20,000.
You gave away a $20,000 watch! How does that make you feel?
Super happy. I’m happy I could provide value like that for someone.
Who is buying these watches?
As far as my audience goes it’s pretty varied. It’s generally people who like watches.
So it’s the people who exist where the Venn diagram of crypto and watches overlap?
That’s what I found interesting about this project. Both watches and NFTs are anchored by a culture of collecting. But the reason watches are valuable – craftsmanship, beauty, materials – don’t really exist in physical form when you’re making an NFT. They exist in two separate universes but on parallel tracks.
Yes. And that’s why it makes sense to have certain rarity traits. So, in my very first collection, I did the same watch in different editions. So basically 100 people got the exact same one. And in the real world, you do that, but there is real life rarity to that. Like, you can’t go and get a Daytona retail. You’re going to have to wait three years or something like that. Or you’d have to go to secondary, and then the markup is pretty high. So basically the digital equivalent to that would be, in my eyes, rarity traits like different colors, different materials, different dials and arms.
So, what’s your theory – is a physical watch or an NFT watch a better investment?
I have some collectors that I can verify hate real-life watches, but they bought into the digital ones just because they get it, and it looks cool. So I think there’s going to be a divide between people that see this and they’re like, “Oh, it’s just an image or video. What value is that going to have?” And then there’s people that are the opposite, who are like: “Real watches? Dude, that’s Boomer stuff.” Where I fall in there is: I like both. I like making them. I like my own stuff, and I always feel weird saying that, but I like looking at the stuff I make. I also do like real watches, and the grail is a Datograph.
Just sell a few more NFT watches, and you’ll be good to go.
I know, but I’ve got to buy a house first.